Britain's antiquated laws on hemp are harming the environment—and short-changing farmers

Though CBD is technically legal in the UK, onerous restrictions mean that products must be imported from abroad. UK farms are losing out

August 27, 2020
30 July 2020, Saxony-Anhalt, Hedersleben: Andreas Richter from the Harz-Hemp Initiative shows hemp nuts on a hemp field. The agricultural cooperative Hedersleben cultivates, among other things, for research purposes in the region on an area of 10 hectares
30 July 2020, Saxony-Anhalt, Hedersleben: Andreas Richter from the Harz-Hemp Initiative shows hemp nuts on a hemp field. The agricultural cooperative Hedersleben cultivates, among other things, for research purposes in the region on an area of 10 hectares

It is easy to be pessimistic about the state of British agriculture, facing now the double punch of Brexit and the Covid-induced deep recession. This year, farmers have faced disrupted supply chains, wasted produce, a shortage of seasonal labour, and extreme uncertainty about the consequences of an imminent hard Brexit.

But there is hope on the horizon. CBD products are already hugely popular in this country, with the industry currently worth about £300 million, and growing. One online platform, Wowcher, recorded a 99 per cent increase of CBD product sales in the UK in 2019, compared to the year before. And over 11 per cent of the population—about six million adults, most frequently people over the age of 55—have used CBD in the last year. A recent study has further predicted that in five years, the industry will be worth nearly £1 bn. The prospect that CBD oil could now be produced on a large scale within the UK is very interesting.

Although hemp is currently grown and harvested in the UK, it remains an untapped resource. Held back by outdated restrictions that allow only seeds and stalks of the plant to be used (for building materials, for instance), the hemp industry cannot reach its full potential. It cannot extract CBD oil from leaves and flowers. As a result, the CBD oil consumed in the UK must be predominantly sourced from overseas, incurring unnecessary cost and meaning that British farmers miss out on the opportunities of harvesting CBD themselves.

From an environmental perspective, the waste of the flowers and leaves is particularly shocking—the valuable flowers and leaves of the plant must currently be disposed of, rather than used for oil. A spokesperson for Margent Farm, a hemp farm in Cambridgeshire, pointed out: “Last year we threw away £100,000 of CBD from a crop with a value of £20,000 on our small farm. It helps nobody to do this – most of all the farmers.”

A forthcoming report by drug policy think tank Volteface will explain the ways in which the full legalisation of extraction of CBD from UK hemp plants would prevent this sort of waste. As this plant is particularly good for the soil—it regenerates it with nutrients from the leaves—more production could have these wider reaching benefits for farmers, beyond the immediate economic and sustainability interests.

At a time when British agriculture is in need of investment and innovation, this policy reform could signal a genuine opportunity for many in the sector. What’s more, recent YouGov polling has shown that this is strong public support for this policy—75 per cent of respondents agreed that UK hemp farmers should be allowed to process the flowers and leaves of hemp crops in order to produce CBD oil.

Volteface, the drug policy think tank behind the new research, hopes to shed light on these currently overlooked environmental and economic issues, and outline a legal pathway to reform, as well as recommendations for a future licensing structure. Liz McCulloch, Director of Policy explains: “Despite unprecedented global expansion, hemp remains classified as a niche crop in the UK—with cultivation estimated at only 800 hectares annually. Allowing farmers to harvest the whole crop would unleash the potential of this highly sustainable industry, driving up economic growth and jobs and supporting green recovery.”

Although some detractors against hemp legislation point to potential problems with CBD oil itself, arguing that further research is required into its alleged health benefits, as well as potential risks to certain groups such as breastfeeding mothers, or from taking very high doses, the fact is that CBD is already legal to consume. While further research would perhaps be beneficial for farmers, health professionals and consumers alike—along with any revised guidelines—it seems strange that a widely available, legal product such as CBD oil should not be produced here, too. Whiskey, gin and beef—products with proven health risks—are products this country champions, so why not allow the production of CBD oil, which has little evidence against its use in moderate amounts?

The recommendations from Pleasant Lands come at an interesting time in the wider debate about drug policy in the UK and elsewhere. As New Zealand prepares for a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis, and many states in the US already allow the medical and recreational use of cannabis, it seems that in many ways the UK is lagging behind—quite possibly to its detriment in economic, environmental and health terms.

While medical cannabis is already legal in the UK, the vast majority is acquired through expensive private prescriptions, and it is therefore inaccessible to many of the patients who need it most. What’s more, many potential patients are unaware that medical cannabis is legal, even if it is difficult to acquire. There is clearly still a certain stigma about cannabis in healthcare, compared to other drugs used for similar problems, such as pain relief or antidepressants. This stigma has meant that, to date, British farmers and consumers have lost out on producing CBD oil, despite the fact that it is not itself psychoactive or illegal.

The reform of hemp production in the UK is an important step forward in rethinking and developing our ideas about the roles of drugs in society and in particular healthcare and the boundaries we should set around them. Why are some drugs and therapies still stigmatised over others? Do our ingrained attitudes about some drugs mean that we have overlooked clear opportunities and benefits in healthcare, agriculture and the wider economy?

Hopefully, as we come to see the double standards and close-minded assumptions that have enveloped this particular crop, we will begin to appreciate more clearly that the grass may indeed be greener the other side of hemp reform. We have much to harvest yet.